Q. I’ve had some really interesting and unique life experiences, and my friends keep encouraging me to write about them. From a market standpoint, is it a better idea to write a memoir, or to use those experiences as inspiration for a novel/work of fiction?

I wish I could answer this question with a bullhorn at every conference I attend. At its heart, this is a question about audience, concept, market, skill, and ego all wrapped up into one tricky little knot.

Everyone has interesting and unique life experiences—it’s what makes being alive so awesome. Our kids say crazy things, we see amazing sights on our travels, we have deep thoughts when our loved ones die, and, since our friends and family love us, they tell us that these non sequiturs, journal entries, and pontifications would make an amazing book.

Do not believe them.

“My friends keep telling me to write this stuff down” is the equivalent of saying “I wrote this children’s book because my kids love when I tell this story.” Your kids friggin’ love you. Of course they love your story. It is not proof of worth, it is proof that you have done no research on what is being published or who your audience is or what a publisher might want. Don’t make this mistake.

With that out of the way, the first question an author should be asking him/herself is: “Why am I writing this book?” Are you writing so your grandchildren will remember the war you fought in? Because it’s a cathartic exercise for you to write about past trauma? Because your pets/children/parents/co-workers do funny things and you want to record them? If so, perhaps you are writing this book for yourself. This is fine and some amazing books have been written (and successfully published) this way, but it leads into my second question:

What are you offering the reader?

The reader has not met you. She doesn’t necessarily care about you. She isn’t charmed by your cooking or the pleasure of petting your cats. Why does she care about your experiences? If you want to be traditionally published, your book needs to be engaging to this total stranger, a feat which is very hard indeed. Luckily, Jeebus invented conflict, lyricism, tension, drama, and humor. This is why you read books on craft, go to conferences for advice on characterization and pacing, and have critique partners who give you feedback on your revisions.

If you think that your nonfictional life is interesting and unique (from an honest, ego-less, audience-minded point of view), and that you have the narrative ability to make this life lyrical and dramatic and engaging to the thousands of strangers who’d have to pay $27.99 for the hardcover, then by all means write a memoir. If you think cherry-picking life’s more dramatic moments in favor of telling a more universal truth might be easier in fiction, then maybe write a novel.

Writing a book is hard, worthy work. Getting that book published, however, is a totally separate effort. You might write a book for yourself, get all those funny, sad, once-in-a-lifetime experiences down on paper; but you get published for other people. Once your book is printed and bound, it’s not yours anymore, it belongs to your audience.

What are you offering them?

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Adriann Ranta
Adriann Ranta Zurhellen has represented New York Times bestselling, award-winning authors, journalists, illustrators and graphic novelists, as well as actors, stuntwomen, makeup artists, and many other pioneering creative thinkers and leaders in their fields.